September 23rd-27th: Aleppo to Hamah, Syria
We pull into Hamah, negotiating a path through bustling streets, random roadcrossers and giant Buicks that dominate the road. A cacophony of car horns is interspersed with heartfelt cries of 'Welcome to Hamah!' from friendly passerbys. Outdoor trade fills the streets - heat blasts from an outdoor kebab grill, a huddle of men collect around a newspaper stand and a lone, ageing Syrian stands before a pile of honeycombs.
We stop to refuel on fresh juice and check into one of the town's backpacker regulars. The last few days have thrown Nick into the touring deep end - we've camped by the roadside, cycled into the heat of the day and been marauded by a cloud of mosquitos. Long enough to enhance the experience of a shower to a new level of luxury. 'Ahhhh. I feel vaguely human again,' he announces, before we grab a bite for lunch (yet another chicken kebab) and fall fast asleep.
These first few days, riding the back roads from village to village, have introduced us to Syrian hospitality, interwoven as it is into Muslim society. We've been invited into homes for tea, lunch, even a haircut from a family of barbers. One stall holder offered a watermelon the size of a bowling ball, perfect refreshment as we toiled in the midday heat. Placing his hand on his heart, offers of payment were refused. Where we've stopped, a small knot of people have gathered - kids on decorated bicycles, men in shades and headscarves, a gypsy woman with tattoos over her eyelids. When we've looked lost, help has been at hand. And along half built highways busy with tractors lugging trailers filled with bags of cotton, builders have waved us down for tea.
Some have taken our visits as a rare chance to seek advice and help with procuring a visa out of Syria. Despite a love for their country, many are trying to escape the system, and resettle in England, Canada or the States. Anywhere where they can change jobs, make money and start a new life. Perhaps the omnipresent posters of Hafez Al-Assad, the recently deceased president, are no reflection of his universal popularity...
Nick, more at home with running an internet company in London than negotiating the Syrian hills, has rekindled his athletic enthusiasm. 'Day one. Survival!' he announces, before slipping into a deep coma-like sleep on a rollmat beneath an olive grove. We've camped in the Roman ruins of Afamea, surrounded by ornate pillars silhouetted against the hillside, not a tour group in sight - awaking for sunrise - after an initial night time visit by machine gun and knife wielding guards. We contemplate our bleak desert-like surroundings, as we cycle on, marked only by scrub, rock and the odd village minaret piercing the sky, softened under a heat haze of the afternoon.
All of which has brought us to Hamah, a quiet, leafy Syrian town famous for its norias - enormous wooden waterwheels providing irrigation for the surrounding fields. Venturing out again, it's time to investigate a shop specialising in deserts, a display of enormous platters stacked neatly into patterns of sugary delicacies. Just walking the streets incites a stream of smiling greetings. Syrians are often talkative, quick to offer invitations for tea, unperturbed by their complete lack of English and our equal ignorance of Arabic. But smiling faces break down the language barriers, and in this society previously closed to the Western world, their open friendship is refreshing.
At breakfast, amongst tables of men wearing robes squeezed by leather belts, thumbing prayer beads, we sample a few plates of meze - tapas like servings of cheese, olives and salad. 'Tomorrow, I get married,' announces the lawyer sharing our table. We ask him about the ceremony. 'We will get married in the evening in the mosque, then we will dance. There will be lots of kissing,' he assured us. Syrian families can be big, and our neighbour comments, 'a big family can be up to 20 children. I am from a small family, 10 children. Sometimes I forget their names!'
And now, it's our cycling day off, a day to drift about and simply wander the streets. The mosques have kicked in once again. So many azans wafting over each other, there's an eerie sensation of mass wailing from the people. We chat to other travellers, rest, feed, wash our clothes and consult the map.
Tomorrow, we're on the road again.